Beijing Leaders Talk Climate in Paris While Residents Sit in Record Smog
The world’s leaders are arriving in Paris for COP21, the historic conference on climate change—and if they require more evidence of the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, images of the smoggy skies around Beijing might help.
Thanks in part to pollution from coal fires lit to thwart the winter chill, on Monday the Chinese capital suffered its worst air quality of 2015. Monitors throughout the city recorded hazardous levels of toxic pollutants. The smog was so bad that government authorities issued an orange alert, the second-highest level, for the first time since February 2014.
This alert comes one day after Chinese environment minister Chen Jining said his country has achieved reduction targets for major pollutants in anticipation of the climate negotiations in Paris.
The U.S. embassy in Beijing reported 666 micrograms of harmful PM2.5 particles per cubic meter. The safe level of PM2.5 particles is 25 micrograms per cubic meter on average, according to the World Health Organization.
Because of the orange alert level, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection announced Sunday that it had instructed factories to limit or suspend production. Construction work throughout the city was also halted.
The Chinese government attributed the high pollution to “unfavorable” weather conditions. When temperatures drop in the winter, pollution increases, largely owing to coal fires lit to ward off the cold.
Beijing’s air quality is notoriously bad. In 2014, officials put up a digital billboard of a fake sun because the real one was impossible to see because of the haze enveloping the city. In October, tennis players visiting Beijing for the China Open complained of unhealthy playing conditions, and face masks—a common sight on the streets of Beijing—have become such a given that they have even appeared as accessories on high-fashion runways in China.
The Chinese government is beginning to take steps to combat the choking smog. Last year, officials announced plans to eliminate 6 million cars that did not meet new, tougher emissions standards. However, the smog and traffic are as bad as ever and may get worse, as it is estimated that an additional 1 million cars will be on the road in Beijing by 2016. That’s a daunting statistic considering China’s horrific traffic jams—including one that brought the 50-lane G4 Beijing–Hong Kong–Macau Expressway to a complete standstill in October.
China has promised to limit its coal consumption and promote cleaner energy, but its government admits that air quality is unlikely to meet healthy standards until at least 2030.